Downtown and Waterfront, Boston Travel Guide
Downtown and Waterfront Summary
- Very pedestrian-friendly (weather permitting)
- Brimful of tourist attractions and historic and cultural institutions (Faneuil Hall, New England Aquarium, Boston Opera House, Granary Burying Ground)
- Picturesque views of the Boston Harbor
- Easy access to multiple T lines that crisscross the city
- Close to Logan Airport
- Multiple points of interest along the Freedom Trail
- Faneuil Hall boasts Boston's oldest block and Union Oyster House, the oldest restaurant in the country
- Rowdy post-collegiate pub-crawlers haunt Faneuil Hall on weekends.
- Austere Financial District and Government Center offer little in the way of activities or eating options.
- Streets can be quiet and uninhabited at night.
- Nightlife is mostly limited to Irish pubs and a smattering of cheesy nightclubs.
- Largely commercial area lacks the charm of more residential Back Bay and Beacon Hill.
What It's Like
The area that's sometimes called downtown loosely describes a collection of sub-neighborhoods to the east of the Boston Common -- Government Center, Faneuil Hall, and the Financial District. To some extent, each has its own distinct vibe.
The northernmost section of downtown Boston gets its name from Faneuil Hall, the colonial-era meeting house once nicknamed the Cradle of Liberty. The moniker also refers to the blocks immediately surrounding the building itself, which include a cobblestoned pedestrian mall lined with bars, touristy restaurants and chain stores like Urban Outfitters and Banana Republic, plus the chain restaurants, souvenir kiosks and Irish pubs that make up Quincy Market and its North Market and South Market appendages. The Freedom Trail, which begins in the Boston Common, passes through this area on its jog north.
West of Faneuil Hall (the building) across Congress Street is Government Center. At the intersection of Washington and Congress sits the Old State House, the city's oldest public building and the site of the Boston Massacre, which helped spark the Revolutionary War. Just north of the State House is Boston's City Hall, a Brutalist cement monstrosity designed by I.M. Pei. The brick-paved open plaza in front is used for public events like Big Top Circus and the odd concert. This is where Bostonians gathered after the Boston Red Sox' World Series win and the Pats' Superbowl championship.
To the south and west lies Boston's nondescript Financial District. Huge old stonework buildings and narrow cobblestone streets bump up against new corporate skyscrapers. A bustling (for Boston) commercial epicenter during the week, the area quiets down at night and is virtually dead on weekends.
Due west of the Financial District is Downtown Crossing, so named for its central intersection at Washington and Winter streets. The area, which is mostly closed to traffic and thus very pedestrian friendly, is a midrange shopping hub, once home to the erstwhile Boston-bred department stores Filene's and Jordan Marsh and now the site of the less distinctive Macy's. At the center of the neighborhood is the newly renovated rococo Opera House, as well as several upscale eateries, including the formal Locke-Ober and more comfort food-centric Silvertone Bar and Grill. Worthy pit stops along the westward marching Freedom Trail include King's Chapel and the beautiful old Boston City Hall (now a Ruth's Chris Steak House). The western border of downtown terminates at Tremont Street, the Granary Burying Ground and the entrance to the Boston Common.
Much of the Waterfront's prime real estate along the city's eastern periphery is taken up with condominiums and a smattering of hotels, but very few commercial properties. To get the best access to the scenic views, stroll along the Harbor Walk, a wooden pedestrian boardwalk that runs along the water, from small, leafy Christopher Columbus Park down to Central Wharf, which is home to the New England Aquarium. Farther south is Fort Point Channel, the site of the Boston Tea Party.
Where To Stay
Downtown Boston is the city's commercial hub, and as such is an obvious choice for business travelers looking to roll out of bed and into the boardroom. That said, the downtown area covers a fairly wide expanse of sub-neighborhoods within walking distance from one another, which means that choosing to stay in the scenic, quiet Waterfront District versus the pub-packed Faneuil Hall area is largely a matter of taste. Culture vultures who want to take in theater or opera in Downtown Crossing can choose to stay in the stony, business-centric Financial District and still be just blocks away. What this territory lacks in quaint Bostonian charm and appropriately enchanting boutique lodgings -- for that, stay in Back Bay or Beacon Hill -- it makes up for with its high concentration of hotels offering a broad spectrum of amenities and price points, from the upscale Ritz-Carlton to the no-frills Harborside Inn and nearly everything in between.